To try to save the dam, Syrian fighters cut a deal granting about 70 militants safe passage out of town. But the Islamic State did its best to sabotage the complex anyway: The aging red turbines were blown up while the control panels were sprayed with bullets.
Syrian engineers have been trying to get one or two turbines running by cannibalizing parts from the wreckage. But with no Soviet-era parts on hand, nobody seems to think that the structure will be generating power in the months ahead, and the hazards of working in and around the dam are still significant: Last week, one newly trained Syrian demining expert was killed when he triggered an improvised explosive device.
But the question foremost in the minds of Tabqa’s residents is how they are going to return their lives to some semblance of normal. “There is no electricity, no food, no bread, and we need fuel for our trucks,” said Khalid Mohammed Ali Tata, 54. “Also, there are no jobs.”
International politics has added to the challenge. The Syrian government stopped paying teacher and other government salaries several months ago, depriving many residents of the ability to buy what limited food is available.
The assumption is that the salaries will eventually start to flow again, if only so President Bashar al-Assad’s government can demonstrate its nominal control of the region. But Syrian forces are blocked from coming closer to the town by a new “deconfliction line” that was negotiated by American and Russian generals, and it is not clear how quickly the authorities in Damascus might start the payments.
Turkey, annoyed by the United States’ decision to train and arm a Kurdish militia it has claimed is linked to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has sealed its borders, including for the most basic humanitarian assistance. The United Nations is active in Syria but has yet to begin any relief efforts in Tabqa, and it has mounted only one effort outside of the areas squarely controlled by the Assad government.
That leaves the United States to serve as a stopgap for the most immediate needs. Nearly 50 tons of flour, paid for by the Pentagon, were trucked in from Iraq to an American-funded warehouse on Wednesday. Another large shipment of American food aid — enough for 30,000 people for 30 days — will be divided among several towns and camps for displaced people in the Raqqa area, including Tabqa.
The United States is also sending in heavy equipment to move debris and is funding demining efforts.
And the American-led coalition is vetting and training forces to hold Tabqa, Raqqa and other nearby areas after they are retaken. They are being put through a two-week training course and will be responsible for maintaining public safety, tracking down any Islamic State fighters in hiding, preventing revenge killings and generally keeping order.
The problems run far deeper than that, and it is not clear who, if anyone, will rebuild the town’s collapsed and damaged buildings or fix the turbines inside the dam. But citing the lessons of Iraq, the Trump administration is staying away from nation-building, whether it involves picking local leaders or undertaking major reconstruction programs.
“We are not going to get beauty; it’s about pragmatism,” said Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones of the British Army, the deputy commander of the coalition force. “If they have put their troops in harm’s way, then it’s got to be their design.”
But not all of the town’s requests are being heeded. Shortly after driving over the dam, one coalition soldier pointed out a building where the Islamic State indoctrinated children as “cubs of the caliphate,” the militants’ version of the Cub Scouts.
As Mr. McGurk, the president’s special envoy, was meeting with the new Tabqa Civil Council, a leader of the body made an impassioned plea for help deprogramming the town’s children, who have not attended normal schools since the Islamic State took control of the area.
“A fundamental problem in our society is that ISIS’ ideology has been implanted in little kids’ brains, which means it will carry on in the future,” said Ahmad al-Ahmad, the co-president of the council. “We need psychological assistance for the kids in school and to teach them the real way of living.”